By Elaine Viets
How do you write a mystery?
There are whole books on this subject.
But the best short advice is in Grafton’s new Kinsey Millhone novel, “W Is for Wasted.”
Kinsey was drawn into the mystery by a call from the coroner’s office. The coroner was “asking if I could ID a John Doe who had my name and phone number on a slip of paper in his pocket,” Grafton wrote. “How could I resist?”
That had me hooked. But then Kinsey explained how to write a mystery:
“Every good mystery takes place on three planes – what really happened; what appears to have happened; and how the sleuth, amateur or professional (yours truly in this case) figures out which is which.”
There it is. The art of mystery writing in one succinct sentence. We writers are supposed to set up the story for the readers, help them find out what really happened, and tell it, giving enough clues to play fair but not give away the ending.
Grafton gives us another dollop of advice in Kinsey’s next sentence:
“I suppose I could put everything in perspective if I explained how it all turned out and then doubled back to that phone call,” she wrote, “but it’s better if you experience it just as I did, one strange step at a time.”
New writers and experienced ones need to remember Kinsey’s advice: Tell the story, one strange step at a time.
Many newbies try to be too clever. They don’t have the skills to deliver a twisted tale. They get lost in the maze they created.
Experienced writers get bored with the format after writing book after book. We try to start in the middle, or start at the end, or switch narrators, often to amuse ourselves. Too often, it simply confuses our readers.
Following the straight path, in Grafton’s footsteps, can be far more difficult. But she kept me interested for 496 pages. She also made me care about two people society considers worthless: a crooked PI and a homeless man who doesn’t even have a name.
How did Grafton pull it off? Read it yourself.
I guarantee your time won’t be wasted.